User-focused design unlocks the potential of Myanmar’s smallholder farmers
Priority Investment Category(s)
Agriculture and Food Security
In Myanmar, the market for agricultural technologies and services falls short of meeting the needs of smallholder farmers. As a result, the productivity of those farmers lags behind that of farmers in neighboring countries, and their incomes lag as well. The need to adapt to climate change poses an additional challenge for these farmers.
Proximity Designs applies a user-centric model to creating, marketing, and delivering high-quality, affordable tools and services for Myanmar’s smallholder farmers. All of its products—including irrigation technologies, agricultural services, and farm finance—are designed to make farming more productive, more profitable, and more sustainable.
Why We Invest
Proximity Designs addresses a critical market failure by providing Myanmar’s smallholder farmers with the resources that they need to improve their productivity. Crucially, it does so by following a unique strategy based on human-centered design.
This approach to developing products and services starts with conducting frontline research—including time-intensive ethnographic interviews—to understand users’ real needs and how those needs fit into a broader economic and cultural context. Thus, as the organization’s name suggests, Proximity aims to get close to its users and to meet them where they are in life. Another key aspect of this approach is that it is iterative: Proximity takes in feedback from users and works to hone each product or service until it fully addresses their needs.
A commitment to human-centered design is rare in markets that serve people who live in poverty. The work of investigating users’ needs and refining products requires an investment of money, time, and design talent, and most organizations that target smallholder farmers try to avoid such costs. But Proximity cofounders Jim Taylor and Debbie Aung-Din Taylor believe in treating farmers not as beneficiaries who receive charity, but as customers who buy a product. This customer-focused approach reflects the Proximity ethos, Jim Taylor explained: “If I give you choice, I’m showing respect.”
Earned revenue from product and service sales accounts for 35% of Proximity Designs’ income, and that revenue structure further aligns the organization with its user base. Proximity Finance is almost entirely reliant on private capital, and in July 2020 it raised $14 million in equity. Proximity’s laser-like focus on smallholder farmers’ needs results in substantial benefits for its customers, who experience average increases in annual income of $250 to $300, depending on which Proximity product they use.
Proximity also multiplies its impact by demonstrating the viability of Myanmar’s smallholder farmers as an addressable market. Its goal is to “crowd in” for-profit companies, which have traditionally neglected those farmers. Proximity’s smallholder financing, for example, served as a proof-of-concept model that encouraged large financial institutions to compete for farmers’ business.
How We Partner
With support from King Philanthropies, Proximity Designs is expanding its customer base and adapting its product lines to meet the changing needs of smallholder farmers. One funded effort, for example, is enabling Proximity to create digital advisory services that leverage the popularity of social media in Myanmar to deliver guidance to farmers quickly and cost-effectively.
Proximity is also helping farmers respond to climate change, which is disrupting historic rainfall patterns and introducing new pests into Myanmar’s agricultural ecosystem. Thanks to services offered by Proximity and funded by King Philanthropies, farmers are diversifying their crops in ways that boost climate resiliency and ensure food security.
A customer in Myanmar completes forms to receive a cash loan through Proximity Finance. Photo: Proximity Designs
A customer installs a Proximity Designs drip irrigation system on his farm in Shan State, Myanmar. Photo: Proximity Designs
A Proximity Finance customer shows off a field of tomatoes on her farm in Shan State, Myanmar. Photo: Proximity Designs
Better tools, higher yields, more income
U Kyaw Hlaing has lived in Kyaung Gon, a village in the Irrawaddy Delta region of Myanmar, his whole life. He shares a home with his wife, his two daughters, his older sister, and his mother. It’s an old wooden house. In the daytime, it’s quiet. But in the evenings, when his daughters are there, it fills up with laughter and conversation. U Kyaw supports the household by working the family farm.
Not so long ago, U Kyaw spent hours each day lugging water buckets in the hot sun in order to water his crops. Now, thanks to equipment that he acquired from Proximity Designs, irrigating the farm takes minutes.
U Kyaw was forty-four years old when he started farming. Before then, he taught at the village school. He had to give up teaching after he came home one day and found his father ill. U Kyaw saw that his father was too sick to continue farming and that his older sister could not manage the farm on her own. “I knew it was up to me to care for the family and make an income. This is how it works in our family. We all do what we can to support each other,” U Kyaw explained.
There were 400 guava trees to water. U Kyaw would carry two large buckets on his shoulders with a yoke. Starting at 7 a.m. and working until 6 p.m., he would spend the better part of an average day watering those trees. The buckets were bulky and heavy, and as he walked between narrow rows of trees, he would sometimes snap off branches with the yoke, thereby losing valuable fruit. It was tiring work that gave U Kyaw back and chest pain, but he wasn’t about to quit. His father passed away four months after U Kyaw left teaching, and his mother’s health was poor.
Then a broken motor on a water pump brought a repairman to the farm. U Kyaw had used the pump to fill his buckets from a well, but the repairman suggested that he get some advice on alternative irrigation methods. After meeting with a Proximity sales representative, U Kyaw invested in a Yetagon-brand sprinkler system, a product that Proximity has developed for the smallholder market. “I’d thought about setting up something similar on my own before, with PVC pipes, but it was too expensive,” U Kyaw said. “Proximity’s Yetagon system is a better value and much higher quality.”
Using buckets, it would take U Kyaw about two hours to water 100 trees. Now, with the sprinkler system, that task takes only about ten minutes. Previously, U Kyaw would get about fifty or sixty guavas per tree, and only thirty of them would be fit to sell. In addition, he could harvest his crops only three times per year. Today, he is able to get about 100 guava per tree, and in the hot season he can harvest every month. As a result, he has seen his income rise from about 300,000 kyat (USD 230) per harvest to 400,000–500,000 (USD 305–385) kyat per harvest.
After he installed the system, U Kyaw and his family began considering how they would spend the extra income that they were earning. They planned to invest some of the money in a small clothes shop that his wife had started. In addition, they would set aside money for health care costs incurred by U Kyaw’s mother. “Now that things are easier on the farm, I can spend more time looking after her,” U Kyaw said.